It’s around noon on a Friday, ten days before an election his guy is widely expected to lose, and Eduardo Castell is mad. “You can’t turn on the TV anymore without seeing Thompson’s face next to some bullshit,” he’s yelling to a seated crowed of about 40 campaign staffers.
Castell is mayoral candidate Bill Thompson’s campaign manager and I’m in Thompson’s campaign headquarters at 99 Madison Avenue. He’s giving a private pep talk to campaign staff, trying to rally them as the campaign moves into its final days.
I wasn’t supposed to be seeing this; I just came to see about a job. They’d offered me one, but not the one I wanted, and I came to see if I could fix that. It turns out, though, that I was supposed to be in the field office, around the corner, not here listening in at the headquarters.
But before I got shuttled out I had a chance to watch more of the talk, and to check out the location. It’s a depressing space. The walls and floors are painted dark gray, and there’s no natural light in the big front room where Castell is speaking. The only indication this is a campaign headquarters comes from a whiteboard, oddly hung ten feet up a support column, where someone has written “Welcome to the Campaign Headquarters of Bill Thompson for Mayor” in faint green dry-erase marker. A sullen teenager sits at the welcome desk, texting.
Castell needed to get mad. Thursday night was a terrible one for the campaign. First, Marist released a poll many Thompson supporters thought would show their campaign gaining ground. It showed the opposite. Bloomberg actually widened his lead.
Later, this New York Times piece dropped, and it’s absolutely damning. It makes the campaign look almost unbelievably unprofessional and disorganized. Here’s the lede: “The Democratic candidate for mayor, William C. Thompson Jr., is chronically late to campaign events, at times failing to show up at all. His press releases misspell words, even getting his own name wrong.” It goes on to detail unhappy staffers, disastrous campaign events, sinking poll numbers, and financial incompetence.
For all that, Castell’s pep talk was impressive, and raised some fair points. I walked in just as he was beginning to heat up. “I’m not going to give you guys the bullshit I give the press,” he said, pacing back and forth (His favorite animal? The panther.) “This is going to be a low-turnout election. An extremely low-turnout election. And their supporters are more apathetic than our supporters.”
That’s not something he’d say publicly, but it’s true. And polls have trouble predicting the outcomes of races decided by only a few, driven, voters.
Now he was really working, pacing in ten-foot loops, and waving his arms. “They’re worried. We’re within single-digits. They didn’t have to go negative in 2005. They’re scared enough to go negative this year.” The elevator came, and the sullen kid at the desk directed me into it.
I decided to go around the corner to the field office, on 29th. I didn’t have much hope for the job, but I was curious to see the organization in action.
It was a one-room affair, in a much nicer, carpeted, space. A gang of newly-hired canvassers was arranged around a long table, practicing their pitches with more experienced field organizers.
This was the Thompson campaign’s silver bullet: 35 or so canvassers working for $10 an hour, rushing to learn their talking points before lunch. One new hire, a very large guy from the Bronx, had five facial piercings.
The group leaders tried to pump people up. Ground organization was key, and would win out in the end. “We’re the underdogs, but soon we’re going to surprise a lot of people, and we’re going to be the winning team. You guys are a part of that,” the one who seemed closest to being in charge told the crew. People seemed to buy it.
Suddenly, as organizers were reminding canvassers to maintain eye contact and to speak positively, Thompson himself strode in. Everyone stopped and applauded. He beamed and waved, and looked like he was about to give a talk. But then, before he said a single word, a staffer’s cell phone buzzed. They were late for something. His handlers rushed him out of the room.
The canvasser next to me shrugged. “I guess he had another event to go to.”